Overheard on gender quotas: “If I were female, it’d be easier to get a job”

Overheard on gender quotas: “If I were female, it’d be easier to get a job”


A few weeks ago, I spoke to a male scientist who was feeling slightly existential, slightly drunk, and didn’t know me at all. He was becoming well-established in his field and had spent a lot of his life learning and researching at prestigious places. Early on in the conversation, he told me:

“My best option is a sex change. Then it’d be easier to get a job and I’d be paid more”.


In his firm, he had been tasked with the responsibility of hiring the next scientist to join their group. As part of the task, he was encouraged for them to be female and allowed to apply less stringent CV criteria if they were.

While he did admit that it was harder for women once they got the job (and said that science, as he saw it, was very sexist), his argument continued:

How is it fair that women get a chance like that because of their gender? Why did he have to hire someone less qualified because they were female? How could the woman live with herself knowing that they got the job because of their gender?

.    .    .

As I listened to him, I thought about how I’d been given a hell of a lot of opportunities for similar reasons.

I didn’t have an easy door to my job based on my background — I studied literature and languages and am now employed by a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company for the tour and activity industry. Rather, I owe a huge amount to people having faith in me and giving me a leg up to places I wouldn’t otherwise have had straightforward access to.

The Inspirefest conference in Dublin provided the role models to show what was possible. Being selected for Outbox Incubator and mentoring schemes with Google and Microsoft gave me skills, confidence, and contacts.

And when I did get a bit of help along the way, I worked my ass off to prove I could do it. And then I went on to the next challenge.

.    .    .

Putting quotas in place to foster a move diverse workplace may seem like cheating. It might seem like women (or disabled people, or anyone else not fairly represented) are being given an unfair chance — even if they’re equally skilled or educated.

But when a group of people are not equally represented, there’s a reason why that’s happening somewhere down the chain.

The drop-off point might be in education, when girls don’t see a place for themselves in STEM or feel they’re not clever enough or mathematical enough or anything-else-enough. It might be after graduating for similar reasons. And, if you do make it into a field where your gender — or anything else — is the minority, there’s a high chance you a) won’t stick around or b) won’t make it to a leadership position.

To level the playing field, you need quotas. A diverse workplace needs to be in place — even if slightly forcefully at first — in order to attract diverse future hires who can see themselves in the company and find a place for themselves once they join. We need hiring procedures that diminish our natural bias to hire people like us. And we need to provide the framework for each talented person to grow, succeed, and not hit ceilings as they move up.


At Inspirefest 2016, Inspirefest founder and Silicon Republic CEO Ann O’Dea chairs a panel on diversity and the future of work. Accenture CHRO Ellyn Shook, Dropbox global head of diversity Judith Williams, Sodexo Ireland president Margot Slattery and Fidelity International head of technology Stuart Warner joined O’Dea on the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre stage.

.    .    .

Honestly, I don’t think quotas need to be forceful. It’s not about searching for any woman to join your company. The talent is there, it’s 2017 — there’s not a complete void, even though a lot still needs to happen in education. If for some reason you just can’t find quality women to hire, lowering the barriers to entry slightly (such as needing a postdoc) isn’t a terrible thing — especially if there’s support to learn and get up to speed once employed.

But talented women are out there. If you know that you need to hire diversely, you look in new places and open your eyes wider to options you might have dismissed unfairly beforehand.

The key is rethinking what you’re looking for. You don’t want another you.As a lesson in how not to approach hiring, here’s Exhibit C from the tipsy scientist from earlier:

“Women don’t come across as well in interviews as men. They’re too timid and don’t have the confidence to work well in a team”.

Ouch. The point he seemed to be making was that women don’t come across like me in interviews. And talking to him, I wasn’t surprised that women didn’t come across like him. The conversation was also about a hard science field, where skill should theoretically be the most important factor.

I thought: is timidity when interviewed by someone like you really the best indicator that they wouldn’t thrive on your team, given the chance and support to grow? If the skills are there, or close to being there with a bit of direction, why can’t the confidence follow? Especially if they are encouraged to excel in their work and are not discriminated against?

.    .    .

After hearing out the tipsy scientist, outlining my counterarguments, and venting my outrage a little (to him and others), I thought things through on my own. His views were misguided and came across badly, but the thing is, I’m pretty sure they’re shared by a lot of others in his industry. And they might well have been influenced by the environment he’s spent years in.

I’m glad that his firm is actively trying to get more women into their team. I just hope they’re given the chance to fit in, keep moving up, and not be pushed out or into someone they’re not. If that doesn’t happen, that company is going to struggle to move anywhere close to where they should be in terms of diversity.

Across wider science and tech, quotas should not be seen as a bad thing when hiring. But once they’re put in place, it’s just the beginning.

Our image of what a scientist looks like, or a leader looks like, is changing to become more diverse. Work environments and mindsets need to continue to adjust and evolve to support this, both in hiring and in employee growth and retention.

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Making content work for a SaaS company: approaching 100k content downloads at TrekkSoft

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